Spaulding NBA basketball

The playoff chase: Trying to explain where things stand with seven days of games left

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To quote Inigo Montoya: “Let me explain… no, it is too much. Let me sum up.”

One week from today the NBA regular season will be over and the long second season of the NBA playoffs will be days away from tip-off. But right now we have little idea of who will be facing who in the first round.

Every NBA team has three or four games left but the games that are left but there is still so much up in the air. Here is where things stand as of Thursday before games tip off.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Top seed: Indiana’s goal from day one was to make sure Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals would be on their court, and amazingly, despite a painful-to-watch end of season slump, Indy is still in control of its own destiny to get the top seed in the East. Wednesday night the Pacers reserves beat the Bucks while the Heat starters (minus Dwyane Wade) fell to the Grizzlies, the combination of which puts Indiana half a game up on the Heat. The two teams face off Friday night — if Indy wins and is up 1.5 they pretty much own the top spot because they own the tiebreaker with Miami. After that game the Pacers close out with a tough game vs. Thunder then at Orlando and if they beat Miami then Indy just needs to win one of its last two to get the top seed. If Miami wins Friday night and wins out at Atlanta, at Washington and vs. Philly then Miami is the top seed. If Miami wins Friday but goes 2-1 in that last three and the Pacers win their last two the teams finish tied, and the tie goes to the Pacers.

All of which is to say Friday’s Pacers/Heat game is HUGE.

Seeds 3-4-5: Chicago and Toronto are currently tied for the three seed and it is a tossup. The Bulls close the season vs. Pistons, at Knicks, vs. Magic then at Bobcats. The Raptors face the Knicks, at Pistons, Bucks, at Knicks. That could go either way, whichever team slips up less.

The Nets are locked in at five, basically. The Raptors and Bulls both have a magic number of one to secure home court in the first round (and for the Raptors to win the Atlantic).

Seeds 6-7-8: Charlotte’s overtime win in Washington Wednesday night was ginormous — the two teams are now tied for the 6/7 seeds, but the Bobcats have the tiebreaker. Get the six seed, avoid the Heat or Pacers in the first round. Charlotte closes the season at Boston, vs. Sixers, at Hawks, then vs. Bulls. Washington has at Magic, Bucks, Heat, at Celtics. Charlotte controls its own destiny but both of these teams just need wins, ideally against the teams ahead of them in the standings.

Atlanta’s magic number to eliminate the Knicks and clinch the 8 seed is now two after they won against Boston Wednesday. Atlanta closes out with a tough schedule of at Nets, Heat, Bobcats and at Bucks, they certainly could stumble in that stretch. Can the Knicks with a banged up Carmelo Anthony really take advantage? Probably not.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Top three seeds: San Antonio has a three game lead over Oklahoma City for the top seed, their number is two and they will get that. With the Thunder win over the Clippers in Los Angeles Wednesday it basically locked the Thunder into the two seed (magic number of two) and the Clippers in the three seed (magic number of one to lock that up over Houston).

Seeds 4-5-6. Portland had dreams of catching Houston and getting home court in the first round but that’s not likely to happen, the Rockets magic number to secure home court in the first round is just two. That said, Houston continues to rest Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley and with that they haven’t locked up anything.

Most likely Portland ends up the five seed and Golden State the six, but the Warriors need some wins because Dallas in the seven slot right now is just one game behind them. Golden State catches Denver Thursday night on the second night of a back-to-back, that would be a big win for them to help lock in that six spot (and likely the Clippers in the first round) and give them a shot at Portland (1.5 games ahead).

Seeds 7-8. What a mess.

As of this writing Dallas is the seven seed, Phoenix is half a game behind them and Memphis is 1.5 back of Dallas and a game behind the Suns. Thursday night Dallas plays San Antonio and it should be desperate — win and they have two games over the nine-seed Grizzlies and they would have a magic number of just two. Lose to the Spurs and they are tied with the Suns one game up on Memphis.

Memphis picked up a huge upset win against Miami on Wednesday and that sets them up for the fascinating ending to this season — Monday night they play Phoenix and if they win that they will be in control. Wednesday night, the last night of the season the Grizzlies play the Mavericks. On Saturday night the Mavericks and Suns play. Here’s the one tiebreaker thing you need to know — Phoenix has none of them. They need to finish ahead of someone.

It is going to be a fascinating end of the season for these three teams.

LeBron James tweets: I’m not mad at Cavaliers GM David Griffin

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers rallies his teammates in the huddle during player introductions prior to the game Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on December 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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After tearing into the Cavaliers’ roster construction last night, LeBron James said he’d tweet even more thoughts.

LeBron delivered, softening the point everyone amplified (that he wants roster improvements) and emphasizing the point that got overlooked (that he’s on board with Cleveland general manager David Griffin):

I’m guessing LeBron saw how his comments went over and wanted to quiet the storm he created. What he said sounds so much more resentful. These tweets read as much more constructive.

But the underlying point remains: LeBron is unsatisfied with the roster.

He won’t be a free agent until 2018, but remember, dissatisfaction with the Heat’s roster contributed to him bolting Miami.

Wizards wearing all black to Celtics game for a figurative funeral

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The Celtics and Wizards have a little rivalry brewing:

The latest chapter comes for tonight’s game, with the Wizards – imitating a commonly used fashion for closeout playoff games – wearing all black to the arena.

Kelly Oubre Jr.:

We’re wearing all black to the game. So you know where we’re going with that.

Round three. Let’s get it.

Wall (as Beal yells encouragement in the background):

All black everything. A funeral.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

When Jae Crowder was asked about the Wizards all-black gear, his initial response…“That’s cute!”

Isaiah Thomas, via Blakely:

“This is definitely not Game 7 or the playoffs,” said Isaiah Thomas. “But if they want to take it that serious, they can.”

Gotta agree with the Celtics here. This is an absurd level of motivational showmanship for a January game.

But I also love it! These petty feuds are fantastic and spice up a long regular season.

My favorite part of the Wizards’ funeral motif: Even if they “bury” Boston tonight, these teams meet again in March.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top 10 to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.